|David Brown is a language consultant and journalist, regularly covering stories in Africa, Asia & the Middle East. He has lived in Finland for 10 years.|
A couple of months ago I signed up to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, attracted by the idea of conquering the world’s highest freestanding peak in one of the world’s most beautiful countries. As you might imagine, trekking to 6,000 metres comes with quite a training schedule.
Judging from the crowds outside, it seems as if everyone in Helsinki is training for some immense marathon. Everyone seems to be lifting weights, Nordic walking or taking Body Combat classes, if not doing all three at once.
It has made me wonder about how people approach fitness and health. If indeed, “fitness” and “health” really belong in the same sentence, because some people seem to focus so heavily on the discipline, frequency and intensity of exercise that I’m not entirely sure it is actually healthy.
To my mind, fitness should be based on activities we enjoy for their own sake, not only because they are healthy. Fitness should be a part of living a full and healthy life – it should not actually be our life.
Talking to a few friends about their “programmes” (and really, who are you if you don’t have a programme?), I’m amazed at how seriously the issue is taken. It isn’t only exercise – a rigorous approach to diet and recovery has to be planned, scheduled and ideally recorded on some mobile app and shared.
Possibly this is a national trait; Finns famed for their engineering solutions and rational approach to life enjoy nothing more than creating Excel spreadsheets, attending courses and suffering through hours of various workouts in order to optimise the limited hours available.
Whether cycling to Porvoo or just sweating through Hot Yoga classes, exercise is something conducted largely alone, and largely in silence. It is not a social event, and it is not something to be enjoyed. There may be a hundred other people in the gym, but there is no requirement to speak to any of them.
My own “programme” is less scientific. I cycle to work and hit the gym once in a while, but the bulk of my training is playing football and hiking, usually with friends. It’s great exercise, but it is also a part of my social life. There is nothing better than a five-hour hike in Nuuksio National Park, followed by a great meal and a bottle of wine with friends.
I do see small groups of friends hiking the 426 steps of Malminkartano hill, but the overwhelming majority of the climbers arrive alone. Uniformly clad in €500 of largely unnecessary NASA-designed fibres and with looks of bitter determination, they stomp up and down the hill without pausing for breath. Or looking at the view.
It doesn’t look like fun. It looks like punishment. I hate to think what happens if they fail to reach their goals for the day. A hundred push-ups? An extra marathon for homework?
I admire the fact that so many Finns take their fitness seriously. And I certainly admire the fact that so many people have the self-discipline to get to a Body Pump class at 9 am on a Saturday morning. But for all the punishment and weeks of eschewing ice cream, wine and barbeque sausages, I hope there is also something that feels like a reward.